First Things…


On my way to a midlife English MA, an undergraduate leveling course in linguistics introduced me to not only one more excellent teacher (Dr. Livingston, who had made a long ago professional/academic jump from math to English Lit and would subsequently retire to mind his cattle, his grandkids, and his bass fishing), but to the previously unguessed wonders and delights of other tongues.

I consider myself blessed to be able to read Shakespeare and Sam Clemens in the original. But there are concepts unique to every language, and finding the one that the Hurons have embodied in a single word was like recovering a treasure lost in a previous life.

Orenda: a song that asks without demanding, hopes without begging, prays without beseeching, empowers the singer without disfiguring and encumbering the soul with hubris. It is a humble expectation balanced by a fear tempered by a great determination. What writer could do without all of that condensed and crystalized into one shimmering word? Orenda.

With that in mind, I am offering here stanzas of a song composed from the odd scraps and gleanings of a life that began in the year when the B52 heavy bomber made its first test flight. For better or worse, my hands and head have gotten into more than a few odd places. The result has been some practical knowledge and a mixed bag of experience re: matters as large as death and fate and as pleasantly trivial as a paper party hat.

In any case–enjoy the song.

LMJ, Sept. 8, 2014

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There are a lot of definitions of what it is to be human.  The one that occurs to me at the moment is that of the creature that goes to a lot of trouble to make and collect stuff, but just as relentlessly loses the stuff it makes and collects.

undiesCase in point:  this pair of obviously new men’s grey Hains cotton briefs found at the foot of an oak tree in a local cemetery.   The dog, whose continuing need for undistracted exercise had brought me to wander amidst the stones, saw–more likely smelled –them first.

They probably told him way more than they did me—although it’s not too very hard to imagine how they came to be where I found them.  The weather had been pretty decent,  and the boneyard in question is agreeably isolated–but across the street from a high school.  Such a private, low rent venue would not go unnoticed in certain quarters.

I am more intrigued by other, more mysterious lost things.  A few months after those cematary-shoeundies were lost or left at the foot of that oak tree, this single black lady’s pump appeared about 20 feet away.  But much more interesting was this unintentional still life that evolved at the head of a hiking/biking trail over a period of several days.

bootThe boot came first.  It was one half of a pretty decent pair of lady’s cowboy boots, size smallish, and it was placed carefully where I found it, on a curb by the parking lot. A few days later, someone added the set of keys.  A few days after that, both items had vanished.

I don’t know how long the glasses lingered, and I somehow think they were missed more than either the keys or the boot.  Or for that matter the black pump or those naughty boy briefs.   Not much  point in keys, shoes, or underwear if you can’t see where you”re going.glasses-on-table

Collectively and individually, we leave such a trail of things behind us that you have to consider how much we are defined by those things and what we would be without them, from Pezz dispensers to Smartphones.  The snake that leaves its shed skin, the hummingbird that builds, uses, then abandons its jewel of a nest, is still essentially itself minus the skin, the nest.  But a naked, unadorned human is one of the nakedest things there is.  Minus artifacts—even the most primal artifacts of beads and body paint—there is nothing in our essential, outward design to suggest the enormous space behind our eyes and between our ears.

The making of stuff seems to serve us as a sort of overflow valve for a space unable to contain its potential.  Certain manifestations of that overflow provide the usually weekend entertainments of garage and estate sales, flea markets and swap meets.

Other things less fun, too.  Seen all at once (as I lately did  at what was once the home of a friend), spread helter-skelter out of the house that once contained it, the stuff generated by a failed marriage is a jangling testament to the ugly, tangled thing that love and hope can become when fear, disappointment, and betrayal mutate it into rage and hate.

Stuff gets lost.  So do a lot of other things.







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sandy1 001It’s not very often that you can be sure, by almost 100%, that you gave someone everything they could possibly have wanted. That you made them happy. That you gave them a good life.

That is what I’m telling myself, anyway. It’s the best I can do, as things stand. Sometimes you have to take comfort were you can find it.

Like the hobos of yore, needy critters have a knack for finding a dependable handout. I don’t know if they leave marks on the fence posts or there’s a part of the Deep Internet known only to the four-legged, but the word gets around. Sandy first came to me about six months ago. He was a decidedly ragged, fully grown tomcat whose lean and hungry look was underscored by that particular sadness and bewilderment that you see in dumped animals.

You learn to pick the lost and abandoned from the truly wild. Wild kitties—like the two small kittens who showed up here, minus their mother, about a week ago—hide at a glance. Like the possums and raccoons that also occasionally come panhandling, wild kitties raise paranoia to an art, the better to survive a world dense with enemies. Most often, you see only a tail tip as it disappears behind or under something. But abandoned pets usually float just out of reach, their hunger and their fear of yet another betrayal warring with their hope of not only a meal, but the recovery of the thing they’ve lost. They sandy2 001want to come home.

Sandy, his name suggested by the nondescript paleness of his yellow coat and eyes, fit the pattern precisely. He hung back for several months before trusting me to run a hand over his skinny, scabby frame. But his commitment and trust, once offered, were total. Whatever he had lost had come back to him in the shape of a middle-aged, perpetually harried human whose familiarity with dashed hopes and unanswered needs made the yearnings of a stray cat very comprehensible indeed.

Knowing the drill, I dutifully arranged the needed times and procedures at a vet’s, the treatment of hurts, the removal of parasites. As a temporary house guest confined post op to the bathroom, Sandy cheerfully basked in the attentions of whoever opened the door, rolled and purred as we went about our days, rejoiced in his recovered domesticity. When he was well and healed of everything, he happily rejoined my small crew of outdoor cats, contented to know that if he scratched at the screen, I’d usually find a minute to join him on the porch for a round of head and tummy rubs.  Along with steady meals, he wanted no more than that.

I’ll never know why he did what he seemingly never did after he came to me, left the safety of a fenced yard to cross a quiet street on a quiet morning. I missed him for breakfast and found him lying where the truck or whatever it was threw him, just a few feet from my driveway.

I never took any pictures of him, so I’ve had to move quickly to catch my memories with a distracted brush before they vanish, leaving only his name. It cost me very little of time or money to see that he did not die nameless or uncared for, hurt or sick or hungry or cold or lost. But even so, perhaps the positive balance of my karma now weighs a grain more in my favor—although I’d so much rather that Sandy was still with me, that I didn’t keep looking for him and rediscovering that he’s gone.sandy3 001

LMJ 7.1.16

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Mother’s Day

slider1I found this turtle while walking the dog.  The dog saw it first, and I thought at first that it had been hit by a car, since it was only a few inches from the asphalt we were walking on, and not many yards from the tank it must have come from.  It was sitting at an odd angle, and holding perfectly still.  But it wasn’t injured, and appeared to be digging into the soft patch of ground beneath it.  It—she–had apparently found, in a highly unlikely place, what looked to her like the right place to lay her eggs.

She must have done this a few times in her life—she was a good eight or nine inches long,slider2 making her a very decent, I suppose several years old specimen of a slider.  Sliders are one of the commoner North American turtle species.  They’re the ones with the pretty red spots on either side of their heads, and there was a time when thousands of baby sliders were sacrificed yearly to the pet trade—until, luckily for them, it was discovered that they frequently carried salmonella.

The sharp splash of disturbed sliders bailing from their sunning spots on rocks and floating logs is one of the iconic sounds of a southern childhood spent at various fishing holes.  I still look for them when I pass a body of quiet water, and think of sitting beneath swags of Spanish moss while my grandpa demonstrated the proper way to thread a night crawler onto a hook.

But this lady stirred other thoughts and memories.  What she was doing—above all, where he was doing it–was so very dangerous.  So ill-advised.

Barbara Wertheim Tuchman, born 1.30.1912 in --, died 2.06.1989. two time Pulitzer winner (the Guns of August and The Zimmerman Telegram).

Barbara Wertheim Tuchman, born 1.30.1912 in NYC, died 2.06.1989. Two time Pulitzer winner (The Guns of August and Stillwell and the American Experience in China).

Yet motherhood is nothing if not the triumph of faith and hope over reason.  On her wedding day, Barbara Tuchman, future historian extraordinaire, insisted to her new husband that it would be a good idea to start their family immediately—in fact, that night.  Young Dr. Tuchman, who was shipping out the next day to the war in Europe, was taken aback.  It didn’t seem right to him to bring a child into the world while Hitler was still in it.

But as the new Mrs. Tuchman pointed out, there would always be, somewhere,  a Hitler.  And that if everyone waited until the world was free of humanity’s monsters, no child would ever be born.

The motion carried.  Nine months later, the first of several daughters saw the light.

So I wish this turtle well, despite my misgivings.  Mother’s Day—now two weeks past– has always looked to me like an unfelt collective apology and motherhood too often like the mother of all bum deals.  I have seen too much of the condescension and contempt that underlies a lot of the official, self-conscious ballyhooing of motherhood, and I am not alone in this. There’s a reason why a lot of women, from Italy to Japan, are choosing careers over babies—with potentially dire demographic results for the countries in question.

I came back a day later to find this. Don't know if she actually committed to this site or not, but I wasn't about to dig down to see. I'll just have to wait, and hope t be available should the babies need help to make it to safety in the water.

I came back a day later to find this. Don’t know if she actually committed to this site or not, but I wasn’t about to dig down to see. I’ll just have to wait, and hope to be available should the babies need help to make it to the water.

But motherhood, in its unromanticized essence, is arguably the ultimate act of faith.  And it is faith, not despondency, that moves mountains.

LMJ 5.19.16







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Breath Space

ratt 001The time you spend waiting for someone to die is its own unique pause in the continuum of daily life.  That is so even when the death in question is that of a tiny, ancient, nearly black tortoiseshell cat.

She was never the most sociable of people. Seventeen years ago, during my almost final year in grad school, I found her baby self hunkered beneath a bush in front of one of the buildings at my secondary alma mater.  It took a combination of patient coaxing and outright deceit to rescue her, and her gratitude was never much evident. Half wild and eternally suspicious, she was quickly christened The Rat, for what would prove a life-long habit of being glimpsed mostly as a whippy tail retreating under a chair, or a small dark face composed primarily of beady eyes and a pointed nose staring from cover.

But in these last days of her life, she has made it clear that she does not want to die alone.   Last evening, I wrapped her in a towel against an unseasonable spring chill and held her in my lap.  When I went to bed, I took her with me in a shoe box, still wrapped in the towel.  When she became restless, the touch of a hand would quiet her.

I had a few things planned for today, but before this serious business, everything will have to wait.  Death is a large matter, even when it comes in a package that never topped over six pounds.  Today is a breath space before the journey resumes.  I must pause here, waiting for the completion of an event that is as much ritual as fact.

There really are no words in most of our vocabularies for everything that comes to us when that final door proposes to open, even when someone else will be going through it.  In contemplating the life and death of Ms. Madeline Ratt, in trying to voice the weight of time and experience that she has embodied for me in her tiny life as it passed through mine, I’m no more up to it than anyone else.

So I will cop out in favor of thoughts already written—better words and wisdom than I can manage, and no less than she deserves.

I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals….they are so placid

     and self-contained,

I stand and look at them sometimes half the day long.


They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,

Not one is dissatisfied….not one is demented with the mania of owning


Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,

Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.

–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Leaves of Grass, 1855.

Yes.  I think that gets it.

LMJ, 5.2.16





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Fraidy Cat

Strictly speaking, the domestic  cat isn’t a domestic animal.  Individually, perhaps; a super-model skinny Siamese in a jeweled collar or any cat lounging like an Ingres odalisque looks and normally acts about as wild and crazy as the attendees at a home and garden show. But the experts tell us that felis domesticus is more properly a commensalist—a volunteer rather than a draftee in humanity’s circle of furred and feathered retainers.  And as any true cat person will tell you, that constitutes a large part of their charm.

One of history's most famous pinup girls, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' (1780-1867) La Grande Odalisque. Commissioned in 1813 by the queen of Naples. All she needs is a tail, ears, and whiskers.

One of history’s most famous pinup girls, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ (1780-1867) La Grande Odalisque. Commissioned in 1813 by the queen of Naples. All she needs is a tail, ears, and whiskers.

The cat, being a citizen (dogs, fine creatures that they are, are most often slaves) has an upfront agenda—getting free room and board with major medical thrown in.  In return, they will, when they feel like it,  do something about the rodents that also chose to live with humans, but fail to repay us with grace, beauty, and a chorus of purrs when the can opener kicks in.  And there are plenty of cats (in Texas, we call them barn cats, even if they patrol, like three in my acquaintance, the out buildings of a boutique winery) who feel it best to make the arrangement strictly business.  Which means

Now tell me you don't see it.

Now tell me you don’t see it.

that the humans involved must rightly do a once-a-year kitty roundup, live-trapping the help for the sake of shots, worming, and general inspection for need or damage.

But there are situations in between that don’t fit neatly into anyone’s agenda, more’s the pity.

Less than a year ago, a threesome of wild kittens showed up here minus their mother.   They were old enough to survive without her, yet really too young to be on their own.  Needing neither barn cats nor an ungoverned population of wild cats, I set about the business of winning the hearts and minds involved with regular food, dependable water, and the patience that cat people learn when trying to do a favor for a suspicious commensalist.

I was soon reminded, as you commonly are in such undertakings, of the limits of good will; one kitten, a little grey tom, was promptly killed by a car.  The surviving two, baptized Fritz and Frieda Fraidy Cat, hung on, just out of reach, until Fritz came over, turned into a love kitty, and then vanished without a trace a week after his first trip to the vet’s.  That left a diminutive, wild-eyed ball of fluff who ran if I so much as glanced at her, hiding until I was inside before coming out to eat.  There was no way to hurry the process, but spring was coming; for little girl Frieda, the biological clock was ticking.  Frieda needed a trip to the vet before the alarm went off.

Frieda F. Single mom-to -be.

Frieda F. Single mom-to -be.

When it did, it was like having to watch a bewildered 13-year-old nymphet being mobbed by a gang of horny bikers. Cats are nothing if not secretive; the number of tom cats who showed up to answer the ultimate call of the wild was astonishing, and the result predictable—non-stop, 24/7  cat fights, a front porch that whiffed like the lion house at the zoo, and finally a half-grown kitten with a swelling mid-section.

Maybe it was hormones, or the realization that a single mom can always use friends.  Many weeks pregnant, Frieda finally accepted my good intentions, going almost instantaneously from fraidy cat to clingy cat.  It wasn’t ideal, but it would do.  As tiny as she was, the litter would probably be a small one, and I could socialize the kittens and find homes for them while arranging for their teenage mom to spend the rest of her days as a bachelor girl.

That last part remains on the table.  Just that.

A week ago, I came home from an errand to find Frieda utterly confounded by the miracle of birth.  She looked at me with frightened eyes as the second of three kittens tried to fight its way out of her tiny body.  Mama cats are generally the best of mothers, knowing what to do from beginning to end; but Frieda clearly knew nothing.  I brought her inside, made her comfortable, cut the cords on the second two kittens (the first had apparently been born dead).  To no avail.  Frieda wanted nothing to do with any of it.  Even my emergency purchase of tiny baby bottles and kitten-specific formula accomplished nothing.  By the next evening, the kittens were dead.

A sad exercise in futility. The box, so tiny, holds an even tinier occupant. One whom I could not save.

An especially sad exercise in futility. The box, so tiny, held an even tinier occupant. One whom I could not save.

Fear is said to be a gift, and I suppose it is a lot of the time.  Fear keeps us out of trouble, keeps us alive, by steering us away from danger.

But it costs a lot too.  Like help when we need it, and deliverance from things we just can’t handle—especially, things we can’t handle alone.

–LMJ, 4.14.16

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DB, hot as hell as the Goblin King in Labyrinth, 19--.

DB, hot as hell as Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth, 1989.  One of Jim Henson’s most delightfully scary productions, replete of weird creatures and surreal visuals.

David Bowie handled being famous about as well as anyone can in a hyper-nosy and envious age. Staying ahead of his own curve probably had a lot to do with it; he never held still long enough for anyone to catch and classify him, which is one smart way to approach any endeavor that necessarily involves being personally famous.

This is not a problem that most of us are ever likely to have, although a lot of people seem to aspire to it. Fame as an end in itself, fame for no particular reason, has become pathologically attractive in an age in which access to YouTube is all that’s necessary to get one’s 15 minutes.

For a slightly paranoid, aspiring hermit like me, this is the height of insanity. The nail that stands up is the one that the hammer will find, and thanks to the Internet, there are now a darn lot of hammers out there–most of them in the hands of those for whom trolling offers a quick and easy way of attracting the attention that is as close as they’ll ever get to achieving personal fame.  Likewise a ready means for the untalented and unaccomplished to lash out with impunity at those who are not so undistinguished.

Still, there are forms of fame that I find worth coveting—ones that would baffle the envy of even the most rapacious, ego-ridden troll. With that in mind, allow me to introduce Aponopelma johnnycashi—the Johnny Cash tarantula.

Apomophema johnnycashi, courtesy of the BBC. Not sure how big this guy is.

Aponopelma johnnycashi, courtesy of the BBC. They didn’t mention how big this guy is.  But I’m impressed.

A recent revision and tidying up of the family tree of the tarantula genus Aponopelma yielded the discovery of 14 new tarantula species in the American south. One of them occurs abundantly in the state of California in the area of Folsom prison, and the adult males of the species are stylishly dressed in black.

This juxtaposition caught the attention of a researcher on the project, one Dr. Chris Hamilton ( now attached to the Florida Museum of Natural history), who saw in it a unique opportunity to express his devotion to the Man in Black. The naming of creatures is a weighty and significant business—witness the prominence given the act in the Book of Genesis—and it’s not often that a fan can arrange such a lasting tribute to an artist. As monuments go, this one partakes of immortality as much as any such thing can. A fact that would not be lost on the man whose final encounter with his own mortality yielded such a profound result.


I do see a certain resemblance between man and spider–an observation that I offer as a compliment, since I’m rather fond of spiders. Especially jumping spiders, which,  up close, look like the Cookie Monster.

The business of creation is often, very often, less a matter of finding what you need to work with than of using what you’ve got, and it takes more than most of us can muster to find in our own impending death the stuff of beauty and enlightenment. The songs that The Man sang at the end were heavy with the understandings that can come only when the time is short and the weight of memory and experience too pressing to be denied. That signature voice, weakened by pain and illness and loss, thereby gained a power that could have been achieved in no other way. It simultaneously wrings and seduces the heart.

We could stand to recover the old Greek concept of, and reverence for, the lyric poet—the definition that Homer had in mind when he described how Odysseus, having  cleared his house of the suitors who had come in his absence to  infest his estate and besiege his wife, found himself dealing with two of the defunct suitors’ hangers on. One was a priest, the other a poet.

For Odysseus, it was a no-brainer. He killed the priest but spared the poet. The priest, he said, only served the gods. But the poet had his gift from God.

It is not often that modern poets get back anything even close to what they give. But perhaps for once, the scale balances. Aponopelma johnnycashi, on its eight long hairy legs, will carry the memory of its namesake into unguessed quarters of time and place, memorializing a poet beyond the reach of all those small souls whose dreams of fame are ultimately as graceless as a baby’s tantrum and as vapid as a junkie’s smile.

LM Johnson, 03.14.16

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Being Naked

last leafThe word is—according to a certain ground hog—that spring will come early this year.

But I live in Texas. And here, spring is official only when those wisest of trees, the mesquite and pecan, leaf out. Normally, this doesn’t happen until well past Easter, so we’ll be looking at naked trees for a while yet—unless you count the live oaks, which can be depended on to keep some green in the landscape even in the dead of winter.

An old cemetery is apt to protect the ancient living as it is to give undisturbed repose to the dead. This live oak would need about three average sized people to get their arms around it. Its been where it is long enough to grow around some very old headstones.

An old cemetery is as apt to protect the ancient living as it is to give undisturbed repose to the dead. This live oak would need about three average sized people to get their arms around it. Its been where it is long enough to grow around some very old headstones.

They’re cagey trees; they do a quick striptease in the spring, almost simultaneously shedding their old leaves and putting on a new crop before going dormant for the summer. I think the druids, whose knowledge was said to come from their own Old World oaks, would have regarded the New World live oak with a particular reverence. In the winter forests of Europe, only those iconic pagan plants, the evergreen holly and ivy, the mistletoe and the pine, make visible the promise of continuing life during the cold months after the winter solstice. A being like the live oak that not only stays green year round, but has figured out how to keep the mystery of its ultimate self so well-hidden, would’ve blown them away.

live oak 2The architecture of a live oak is obvious only in the most ancient specimens, whose trunks have a muscular, antediluvian quality that speaks of the patience needed to endure time and heavy weather in mind-numbing quantities. But for most other trees—including other oaks—winter is the season of revelation. It is only then that the above ground structure of trees large and small can be fully seen and appreciated.

Looking up into the soaring latticework of empty branchesbig oak 1 against a winter sky is like standing under the arching vault of a Gothic cathedral. It is a world above the human world. By day, it is a realm of wind and silence punctuated by the occasional fretful bark of a squirrel or the cries of over-wintering birds. By night it is a star-hung eyrie for hunting owls, a fishing net that snares the moon. The rustle of leaves is absent, replaced by the creak of limbs and the dry rattle of big oak 2twig on twig. The summer chorus of singing insects is still.

The mysterious details that even a small tree can conceal are open to inspection. The song bird’s nest that was hidden at waist height by summer leaves is suddenly, astonishingly, there. How could you and every cat in the neighborhood have overlooked it?

Even now, this carefully constructed bundle of twigs could be overlooked, if it was in a bigger tree.

Even now, this carefully constructed bundle of twigs could go unnoticed, if it was in a bigger tree.

canvas Reading Tree 002

The Reading Tree. Original acrylic on canvas miniature by LM Johnson, 2016.

Most song birds do not reuse their nests. This one, it’s mission accomplished,  will fall apart in the course of a new year’s storms. The trees will recover their leaves and their mystery, giving shelter to all the creatures who live in their embrace and shade to those who contemplate our time and lives from the sanctuary of their roots.–LM Johnson, 02.17.16

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Scary Monsters

dragon portraitHe was born a springtime ago in Michigan. His mother took one look and decided not to bother raising him. The humans who took him in named him Dragon.

The Darwinian demands of survival can be very harsh, especially if you aren’t at the top of the food chain. In a whitetail, all the details count heavily; a pink nose would sun burn, too much white would make for high visibility to predators, and blue eyes are light sensitive. Mama deer made the only choice she could, that of not expending her limited resources on a child unlikely to carry her genes forward to offspring of his own. In her book, this child was a monster.dragon portrait2

The humans who rescued him had a different frame of reference. Humans value oddity, at least in other creatures. And we are as drawn to beauty as we are baffled by its definition.

Definitions of beauty are as slippery as they are varied, and the quest for beauty haunts and informs us as we pick through the mundanity of our lives, hoping for that which eludes us even as it draws us on. The recent arrival at local nurseries of the year’s first bare root roses has already suppressed my memories of rose bushes past to awaken in me that optimistic pursuit of beauty that possesses even the most under skilled gardener in the spring. I’ve sworn that if I give in to it this year, it will be to replace my dwindling collection of modern roses with the old roses that can survive almost anything. Within my frame of reference, toughness has its own unique beauty, although not everybody sees it.

Maybe what we see as beautiful must always be referenced in some intimate way to ourselves and our circumstances. Or perhaps it must be something that stands well outside us—a strangeness that would seem monstrous if it was any closer than arm’s length. There is a recent theory that the  gene that produces blue eyes in humans mutated only once in a single individual, someone with the dark eyes that remain the norm for our species. Two copies of the gene are needed to produce blue-eyed children, and the person who carried this anomaly passed it along to enough unsuspecting descendants to eventually result in blue-eyed babies.

I wonder how many of those first strange children were abandoned—or killed—by their horrified parents? And how many were taken in by strangers who were sufficiently removed to see beauty where those closest to it saw only a terrifying, intolerable difference?

dragon miniature canvas 001

Winter Stag. Original miniature acrylic on canvas by LM Johnson, 1.17.16

If Dragon the fawn lives to be fully grown, he will be a thing of astonishing oddity—and beauty. Fated, too, for a life in captivity, if he is to have a full one. Left unprotected, his beauty would likely summon that other response that beauty too often stirs in humans—it’s a too human thing that we do, so eager to possess beauty that we impoverish ourselves by destroying it.

LM Johnson 1.27.16

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Happy Trails

sadieSometime before the end of winter, I’m likely to be out another dog.

I don’t normally cry over such things; any life that has been long and well lived is not something to be mourned when it reaches its inevitable end. The dog in question, Sadie, is around 14 years old, a boxer mix. And if she came here as a neurotic, abused puppy, she has lived and will die as a well-loved pet and companion who regularly went fishing with her master, ate home cooked meals, and always had a warm place to sleep in the winter.

Of course, it’s hard to watch the life of anyone you care about end, even when the end is shaping to be a gentle one. Extreme old age is not generally a pleasant spectacle, unless you’re looking at a redwood tree.

Yet I can look at Sadie with something other than horror and pity even though she is so very thin now, still eating well but it doesn’t stick to her bones. Every rib is showing, old scars are resurfacing and she sleeps a lot. She has a hard time walking. But she is content and in no obvious pain, and watching her fade is like watching the end of a year as it subsides into fall and winter.

The spring always returns, although it is always a different spring. There will be flowers and birds, not last year’s flowers and birds, but others just as fine and beautiful. By next spring, I expect that the grass will have covered Sadie—I always get out the shovel and do the honors myself. And I will miss her, even though by then there may be another bright-eyed puppy tumbling along beside me, yapping and hassling the new senior dog who will be two years old and settling into his role as such.

The Long and Winding Road. Original watercolor, LMJ 1.11.16

The Long and Winding Road. Original watercolor, LMJ 1.11.16

But the trail of time and life always leads onward through the endless endings and beginnings that are its punctuation. It is memory that gives it its full dimension, I think. Will Sadie carry from her time here any memory of the ones who loved her? I can’t say, although I firmly believe that all dogs—and cats—go to Heaven.

But I know I will sometimes, not unhappily, retrace a certain pathway in my mind that I can walk, if I choose, forever. And she will be there, young again, with her sad gargoyle’s face and her lean and agile step, her fear of thunder and lightning, her patient gentleness and the wild strength that was always held in check by her gentle, fearful heart. The happy trails are always there, winding into eternity for those who would follow a pathway carved by love.–LMJ 1.11.16

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Fine and Quiet Part 2

leaf litter2The solstice has officially arrived, but the bright days of late autumn lingered here until as lately as a week ago. This is frequent in North Texas; well into December, we often enjoy a muted but pleasing echo of the extravagant colors that fall foliage takes in the Northeast. Leaves like freshly minted gold coins flutter and shower down from sycamores and elms, while a scattering of Chinese tallow and red oak leaves glow overhead like cold flames of burgundy and purple and pink, and underfoot like a careless scattering of ephemeral jewels. The show will be over only with the first hard freeze, leaving the bright red berries of nandina and pyracantha to put color into a landscape otherwise gone as 3leaveswheaten/sere as a coyote’s winter coat.

The pup and I continue our forays to various local graveyards, and his manners are indeed improving as he explores the world on a level that I can scarcely imagine. He is blessedly free of the thoughts that humans are likely to have in places and times like this; an inclination to take stock is an essentially  human leaning, and time a concept that we seem to share with no other creature. Nose tocisco1 the ground, the pup ponders the messages that the earth delivers– the scents that mark the mysterious passages of other animals and the workings of storm and drought and season. As he does his research, I do mine; I study the stones that mark the human passages that ended here, and contemplate the accompanying messages of the season.

Most of us hope, in some way, to outrun our mortality–to live on, if only in our names.  The quest for immortality is an old one, and humans ranging from the ancient Egyptians to the current Kardashians have invested a lot of time, effort, and resources generally in the hope of not being forgotten.  But this has not been without its downside.   Fame, if you’re around to know about it, will get you stalkers, trolls, lawsuits, parasitic hangers-on, and the cover of the National Enquirer.  Homer, wise in the ways that poets are apt to be, recounted that Achilles, having chosen  everlasting fame over a long life, wound up regretting his choice.

This stone and others like it was placed long after the fact. A final act of kindness and respect.

This stone and several others like it was placed long after the fact. You can see it as a bit of housekeeping in a very well-kept cemetery–or the last possible act of kindness and respect that can be extended to a long dead stranger.

There is no discernible inscription on this marker, an unworked piece of native stone about a foot high. The pattern of the lichens is as rich as the threading in a piece of brocade.

There is no discernible inscription on this marker, an undressed chunk of native stone about a foot high.But the pattern of the lichens is as rich as the threading in a piece of brocade.

But the elaborate concern that most of us show for out dead  bespeaks our humanity in intimate ways that are only incidentally public.  Our private griefs must have tangible expression; and the awareness of our shared fate binds us, prompting us to extend our caring to strangers.  What they are, we will be.  Where they have gone, we will follow.  We must care for them, if we hope to be cared for in our turn.

The dates on this handmade marker--a very simple bit of concrete work--are Depression era. Money was short--but love was not.

The dates on this handmade marker–a very simple bit of concrete work–are Depression era.  It looks to be the grave of a small child.  Money was short–but love was not.

I‘ve seen that in the last few weeks, even some of the older graves have grown festive. Silk poinsettias and wreaths sparkle among the stones. We have a hard time letting go, and holidays, those significant markers in our personal timelines, highlight the absences. It’s a time when we feel the urge to commune with those departed, even though any response can come only in memory and imagination, and will likely owe much to our regrets.

This, likewise, marks the grave of a child. I suppose the parents had more money--but no less grief.

This, likewise, marks the grave of a child. I suppose the parents had more money–but no less grief.

Time is the stream in which we all go a’fishing, and what we catch as we cast  into it is as uncertain as the end is sure.  Maybe it’s enough that we made the sort of impression that merited words on a  stone–one that someone will visit yearly in the first days of winter, bringing with the token of evergreen a hope of immortality and rebirth. —LM Johnson, 12.28.15

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